We had dragged in at 9:30, after six hours of last-minute Christmas shopping, leaving the last of the other desperate shoppers still in the littered stores with their long lines at the registers and their exhausted cashiers. Dumping the bags full of packages just inside the door, we simply stood and looked at each other for a minute, almost too tired to think. Finally Patty gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Just leave those where they fell, Ace. I’m going on up to bed. We’ll wrap them in the morning.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be up in a bit. I’m too wound up to go to sleep right now. I think I’ll see what’s on TV. If I remember right, one of the movie channels is doing a Christmas Eve marathon of the top ten versions of A Christmas Carol. Maybe that will relax me.”
As Patty traipsed up the stairs, I grabbed a beer from the fridge, then settled back in my recliner and fired up the TV. I was in luck. The 1984 adaptation of Dickens’ work, with George C. Scott playing Scrooge, was just coming on. That’s one of my favorites, and I watched it through to the end. At that point I was feeling drowsy, but the 1999 production with Patrick Stewart was next up, and that version--although it’s too grim to be what you’d call a good time--is an excellent one as well, so I got another beer and plopped back down in my chair while the opening scene began to roll, with a horse-drawn hearse bearing Jacob Marley to the graveyard. There beside the hole in the ground stands Scrooge, the lone mourner.
I must have dozed off. I don’t know how long I had been asleep, but I woke abruptly, with my limbs heavy and my back stiff. The house was as still and dark as a tomb, the only light being a ghastly pale green emanating from the television screen. “Huh. I must have slept through the end of the marathon,” I thought. I started to reach for the remote, to switch off the TV and head off to bed, and discovered I couldn’t move! Groggily I stared down, and realized that my body was wrapped in a heavy chain, which was coiled around me and pinning me to the chair like some metallic anaconda squeezing its prey.
I was frightened; I’m not going to deny it. I was about to call to Patty for help when figures appeared on the screen, insubstantial things, themselves the same appalling green from which they emerged. One by one they stepped out of the screen and moved toward me, glowing and pale but vaguely human-like forms, moaning as they came. I cringed back in my chair as more and more of them appeared. They formed a circle, crowding around me. They too were in chains, which clanked as they dragged them across the floor, and their countenances were haggard and forlorn.
“Speak, dread spirits,” I said through trembling lips. “Tell me, who are you, and what do you want of me?” (That’s not my normal style, but waking out of a Dickens marathon, and given the timing, it seemed appropriate.)
Instead of speaking, however, they turned as one, and pointed toward our flat screen TV. The eerie green light faded, and in grainy black and white, scenes began to unfold, one after the other. I saw a river ignite and burn, and marveled. I saw majestic mountains gouged and scraped into rubble and piles of waste, and mourned. I watched smokestacks turn the sky dark gray, while their ash fell on women hanging sheets and diapers on clotheslines, and shrank back. I watched dead fish floating in a river’s current, their bodies deformed, their skins marred with lesions, and bowed my head. I watched ‘thalidomide babies’ trying to write, holding their pencils with shrunken limbs or flippers, and I wept. I watched seven CEOs of tobacco companies declare, under oath, before a congressional committee, that nicotine is not addictive, and raged. I watched children flee from a burning hut in a tropical landscape, with a jellylike flame searing their flesh, and I screamed.
“Stop! I beg of you, stop! I can stand no more!” I pleaded.
The ghosts took pity on me, and the screen went blank.
Shaken, I asked again, my voice trembling, “Tell me, tell me. Who are you, spirits? “
“Someone who watches as much TV as you do, and you ask a question like that?” They gave a hollow laugh. “Over the years we have assured hundreds of millions of viewers that ‘you’re in good hands’; that ‘like a good neighbor,’ we’ll be there; that we are creating ‘a better world, through chemistry’; that we are ‘strength on your side’; that we are ‘taking you forward’; that we are ‘listening, answering’; that we are ‘engineered for life’; that ‘we never forget who we’re working for’; that we’re ‘resourceful by nature’; that we offer ‘science for a better life’; that we’re ‘delivering results that endure’.“
“I recognize the slogans,” I said. “But what’s that have to do with you? You look like people. Those are corporate slogans. You aren’t corporations. Corporations aren’t people.”
They looked at one another, and then in an ominous chorus declared: “We are corporations. We resemble your kind in the minds of a handful of judges, who have declared us to be persons. We are as fictitious or as real as Dickens’ creations--legal fictions rather than literary fictions, the ghosts of corporations past and present.”
This was not reassuring, but I persisted. “What is it you want with me, and why are you and I in chains?”
“Speaking of ourselves, we are enchained by our own greed. We are ‘persons‘ without a conscience, without morality, without love or pity or mercy. We exist--are devoted to--profit. Nothing more and nothing less. Our Higher Power is our daily stock quote. Call us the quintessential Scrooges.”
“That’s you,” I said, “and I’m genuinely sorry you’re in that kind of shape. But what about me? Why am I wrapped up in these chains?”
“You too are ensnared in the monetization of life,” they began, and I knew they didn’t mean that as a good thing. “You consume more of Earth’s goods than any one person has any need for, wasting much and stealing from the future. You accept the right of us and others like us to shape your wants, to do what we wish with the land and seas and skies, to purchase laws and governments. You allow us to decide what news you will receive and what news will be denied. You turn over to us your children’s education, and the shaping of their desires.”
And all I wanted to do was watch a movie, I thought. Did I ask for any of this? No, I didn’t. Still, I couldn’t deny what they had said. They were right. “So all of us are in bad shape,” I finally said. “I’m complicit. What do you want?”
“We want you to free us so you may free yourself,” they said as one, their voices full of anxiety and even fear. “We may not bear a conscience, but at least we have a survival instinct. End this charade. We’re not people and never will be. Strike down our phony personhood. Please. Otherwise, we, you, and Earth itself are doomed.”
“Earth doomed?” I said. “Whoa! That’s taking ‘serious’ to another level. What’s that about?”
“You have witnessed Christmases past and present,” they said. “These are Christmases of the future.” Once again they turned and pointed to the TV screen.
Together we watched as glaciers and ice caps melted, oceans rose, and millions of coastal residents fled before tides racing inland. As forests vanished. As cities in deserts finished draining their aquifers, and the rivers they had diverted dwindled to a trickle. As permafrost melted and clouds of methane rose into the air. As plant and animal species disappeared--millions of years of creation’s work gone in an evolutionary minute. As unimaginably violent storms flattened towns, flooded rivers, threw automobiles through the air like children’s toys. As starving people watched farmland turn barren, the soil baking and cracked under the sun.
I was stunned. They had known what was coming, and yet they too were stunned. Finally I spoke. “That’s really what’s going to happen?” I asked. “There’s no way to avoid it? Please, tell me, spirits! Tell me it doesn’t have to be that way! Tell me I can do something!”
They opened their mouths to speak, and then I heard Patty’s voice, calling from the stairwell. “Ace, what in the world is going on down there? Why are you yelling?” I twisted in my chair. The chains were nowhere to be seen. Neither were the ghosts of corporations. Nonplussed, I looked at the TV screen. There was Kermit the Frog, playing Bob Cratchit in A Muppet Christmas Carol, sitting down to Christmas dinner with Miss Piggy as his wife. I rubbed my forehead. “Patty,” I said, “your voice may be the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard. And God save us, every one!”
“Don’t you mean ‘God bless us, every one’?” she asked curiously.
“Wrong century,” I said. “And I’m not Tiny Tim.”
© Tony Russell, 2013